2018 has now become the year of The Clear Backpack—a emblematic character complete with its own Instagram page. For the record, school-issued, mandatory clear backpacks are not the gun control safety measure Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students wanted. But in an unexpected way, the much-mocked solution sparked a conversation around menstrual stigma—redefining the terms of “conceal and carry” and gender politics in the process.
Parkland survivor and outspoken advocate David Hogg expertly turned the public’s collective attention on student privacy after the backpack mandate, saying, with added emphasis, that “there are many, for example, females in our school that when they go through their menstrual cycle, they don’t want people to see their tampons and stuff.” Fellow survivor and activist Cameron Kasky was also pictured smiling with a bookbag full of tampons, illustrating the point that this unjust invasion of privacy is so extreme that his female classmates’ feminine hygiene products will be on display for all the world to see.
Certain feminist circles are heralding the Parkland boys as allies who are sympathetic to the girls who are suffering the most in this crisis of privacy. A less popular opinion—and the one this writer holds—is that the boys’ argument hinges on the idea the girls in their school would rather conceal and carry their maxi pads. A girl hiding all evidence she is on her period is the manifestation of period stigma—and suggesting girls should hide their tampons inadvertently contributes to it. No one wants a gun hidden in a backpack—yet the boys at Parkland seem to hope girls will find a way to conceal and carry their tampons.
Periods are a taboo subject in India often mothers do not discuss them with their own daughters. Sanitary pads are expensive. India’s pad man, Arunachalam Murugananthan, faced public shame and Period Stigma himself while test marketing his invention on himself using an attached bag of blood. His wife and mother left him. Nevertheless, he created a machine (earning an award from the Indian Institute of Technology) helping to make pads inexpensively- with or without electricity- which is crucial for women living in poverty. Gaining sanitation can literally mean gaining an education.
Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative hinged on the fact that around the world, getting your period can mean missing school or dropping out. That is true in the United States, too. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo supports giving every girl enrolled in school free access to pads and tampons—pointing out that these products are as necessary as the freely given soap and toilet paper in restrooms everywhere else. In California, activists rallied around a similar measure. Across the country, women are agitating for an end to the tampon tax—the so-called luxury tax paid on women’s hygiene products that, for instance, is not applied to Viagra or, in some states, kettle corn.
The “feminist wave” at Parkland began with wanting to keep feminine hygiene products under wraps, and the initial hope was that the shock value of tampons on display would eliminate the new security measure. But since Kasky stuck a box of Tampax in his clear backpack, he claims to have since learned about menstrual flow and the cost of these particular “health products,” both of which are otherwise typically glossed over in the classroom. It turns out clear backpacks might not be a bad idea after all—since it appears they are teaching boys to have empathy for girls who have and will have their periods for approximately half their life, and forcing them to come to grips with the normal biological functions of bodies that menstruate.
Sexism is linked to violent crimes, and increasing empathy for women can reduce toxic masculinity. Maybe removing the stigma and shame of periods can decrease sexism. Maybe a more feminist society can decrease school shootings. Maybe these Parkland kids can eradicate mass shootings with tampons. Who knew?
Maybe this can, and should be, a class exercise in every school. Clearly, not one girl at MSD will be bullied for a tampon falling out of her bookbag. Chivalry’s not dead if a boy can hand a girl in need a maxi pad. What can a clear backpack do for you?
Juliet Abram is a Boston-based writer and research analyst focused on sociology and healthcare. Her works has appeared in Cleveland’s PressureLife magazine, Psychology Today and The Fix. She is also a poet, blogger, fiction writer, illustrator and artist.